Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.


[A]lmost the same but not quite


Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men’: colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized’:

Mimicry is [...] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which [...] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?


Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.


In the UK, we have just concluded LGBT History Month. Ironically, if we can learn anything from this month – by doing some history – it is to take its name with a pinch of salt.

LGBT History started out with the G. That is, post-war narratives tend to centre on gay men: both negative attention and emancipatory activism, landmarked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, have mostly focused on male nightlife. As the gay liberation movement developed, gradually the L was added, for example in Lesbian and Gay History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1994. Later on, the ensemble was completed with a B and a T. Surely, this covers all bases, institutions like LGBT History Month seem to suggest.

But it would only be fair to continue adding letters: if we have a T for trans*-persons (transgenders, transexuals, cross-dressers…), why not add an I for intersex? After all, the T focuses on gender identity rather than sexual preference. If we include the lives and struggles of people who are crossing the gender binary, than surely we should include those of people who move somewhere in between? And why not also include a B, a D, an S and an M to include other kinds of marginalised practices? (see footnote 1) And how about the H that is sometimes included in southern Asia to represent hijras?

Hijra communities are in fact a good example of how culturally specific all these gender/sexual identities are. And because of their specificity, it is problematic to subsume them under the Euro-American post-Stonewall denominations used in global activism. Activists worldwide quite understandably employ these denominations in order to have a language to speak in, not least to reach financial donors in the west. But I fear that such names do not much help the cause of people suffering under post-colonial governments which picture, for example, homosexuality as an intrusive western ‘lifestyle’: see the new law that came into effect in Uganda only last week.

But nor are they always equally appropriate within ‘western’ history itself. In Plato’s Symposion, for example, two different characters describe men who love men as being more masculine (as well as being more intellectually creative) than men who love women. The latter are the androgynous ones. This differs markedly from popular perceptions about gay men nowadays. (footnote 2) A quite different example are the ‘sodomites’ we encounter in high-medieval penitentials. A ‘sodomite’ could be a man who had had anal sex with a woman, or with a man: method mattered more than gender. And how about the category of medieval mystics who, in their erotic poems, desired nothing more than a spiritual unity with Christ? If we want to take this cultural and historical diversity into account, we might end up with a whole lot of identity categories.

Some have rightly questioned this explosion of compartmentalised identifications and call themselves ‘queer’. Yet in many quarters this has only led to the addition of an extra letter to the alphabet. This leaves the English-speaking world with a host of LGBTIQQ societies. That last Q, of course, stands for ‘questioning’.

Which is perhaps what we should be doing. For to narrow down our adolescence to the choosing of a letter (including an S for ‘straight’) can surely not be the most rebellious thing.

And yet, I would not want LGBT History Month to go away.

A question that has occasionally been asked to me since becoming involved in this topic, is why gay people feel the need to flock together in special bars and parades – which implies the question: why is there a separate LGBT History Month?

The answer may be obvious to anyone with alternative tastes in anything: you need such places to find what you are looking for (in this case it may be anything from conversation to romance or sex) and feel normal (need I say: in a special way). It is the burden of the marginalised that their tastes are not taken for granted and need to be specially signaled. In that sense, a gay bar does not differ much from a Comic Con.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

These places thus fulfil an important function, as does this History Month. But we should not forget that this function is largely political. By forming a group and setting themselves visibly apart, people command recognition for their existence. What is more, people find safety and comfort in group identities. However diverse sexual and gender behaviours and feelings may be, the fact that people classify themselves and others is only human. (footnote 3) These reasons make people identify as, for example, ‘Russian’ or ‘taxi-driver’, just as they may make them assume gender identities like ‘woman’ or ‘drag queen’; or sexual identities such as ‘dyke’ or ‘married’ – although soon this will no longer be an exclusively heterosexual identity in England, too: the first same-sex weddings are to take place in March.

The point, however, is that if we limit ourselves to such categories, we limit our imagination. These categories create antagonisms and make it harder to empathise with others. Let this History Month be an opportunity, not just for people who call themselves LGBT, but for everyone, to learn from historical diversity and reconsider their own names and alliances.


(1) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has raised the question why gender should be the decisive dimension of our sexual identities (Epistemology of the closet (Berkeley, 1990), 8-9). It may have something to do with the prominence western cultures give to romantic ties, I suspect.

(2) In more formal terms, ideas about what sexual morphologies go with what sexual subjectivities, are constantly changing. These terms are taken from David Halperin’s famous essay on “Forgetting Foucault” (in the journal Representations, 1998).

(3) The pre-modern existence of sexual identities was one of the conclusions of a piece of research I did a while ago. It contradicts the more usual interpretations of Foucault’s history of nineteenth-century sexuality as describing the origins of sexual identity per se. A recent manifestation of this misunderstanding occurred in a Volkskrant interview with a medical doctor. If the newspaper quotes him correctly, he thinks that something only exists if you have a word for it. What is more, he seems to be unfamiliar with any such words that do exist, but outside the western medical profession, which popularised the word ‘homosexuality’ in the nineteenth century – as the name of a disease. Everyday words that people use to describe themselves or their desires, are ignored. Thus, these people and their desires themselves are ignored. In a typical twist, the opinion of those in power, such as presidents, are taken to represent the ‘true’ culture and heritage of a country like Uganda. While pretending to a liberating cultural relativism, such texts actually silence those people that are at this moment in the greatest need of having their say.

Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked [...] The heat [...] was unbearable [...] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.

The artist’s arrogance (hidden)

In a previous post, I noted the arrogance some writers display in their works. But many writers in fact do the very opposite. They exhaust themselves in protestations of modesty.

My lack of skill and experience prevents me from setting forth an exquisite narrative in learned language. But the power of heartfelt love more strongly commands us not to be puffed up with vain glory and simply bring the truth to light.

These sentences introduce a medieval Saint’s biography – the ‘Life of Lady Balthild the Queen‘. This Saint’s Life, or hagiography as it is called, deals with the piety, miracles and suffering of a seventh-century slave-turned-queen. She ended her days on earth in a monastery near Paris. Probably, it was one of her fellow nuns who put down her story in writing. This anonymous nun realised perfectly well that her writing would constitute an act of arrogance. However, contrary to Multatuli and Karl May she made this arrogance magically disappear.

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688, where Balthild and her hagiographer lived. Reproduction by Achille Peigné-Delacourt in the co-edited Monasticon gallicanum, found on leseglises.chelles.fr/lieu/batiment/histoire-des-eglises.

It was not just a medieval or Christian demand for modesty that made this nun talk of her ‘lack of skill’. For modesty does not ‘veil’ all early-medieval writing. One very famous Christian writer of about that time (admittedly, two centuries earlier) wrote:

To those who do not understand what is here set down, my answer is, that I am not to be blamed for their want of understanding. It is just as if they were anxious to see the new or the old moon, or some very obscure star, and I should point it out with my finger: if they had not sight enough to see even my finger, they would surely have no right to fly into a passion with me on that account. [... They] had better give up blaming me, and pray instead that God would grant them the sight of their eyes.

This is Augustine of Hippo, in a book that explains how one should read the Bible.

Modesty has always been considered a great good in Christian writing. Yet for Christian women, it was not just a good way to write – it was the only way. And so we find women in the nineteenth century, the century that I am most familiar with as an historian, still holding back from writing and publishing, and especially from writing and publishing about their own lives: an inhibition that the male Multatuli has clearly overcome. See, for example, the recent articles by Toos Streng on ‘Female Novel Writers in Netherland, 1790-1899′ and Marijke Huisman on ‘Religion, Gender and Autobiographical Autorship in the Nineteenth Century’ in the journal De negentiende eeuw. Also see Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay A Room of One’s Own. In chapter 3, she describes Judith Shakespeare, William’s imagined sister.

Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.

I am not saying that all women in Christian history were modest and the men presumptious – that would not at all be in line with the facts. But women who wrote were much more vulnerable to accusations of immodesty, of arrogance, than their male counterparts. This must have kept many women from writing at all. It induced other women to garb their ideas in a profusion of apologies, excuses and legitimations – a greater profusion on average than it made men.

One such ‘excuse’ forms a well-worn topos in literary history. This is the emphasis on ‘truth’. The ‘heartfelt love’ (for Christ, presumably) brings the anonymous biographer of Saint Balthild to ‘bring the truth to light’. The urge to let ‘the truth’ be known makes her overcome her initial reluctance to write. Yet this excuse is in fact a clever trick. She secures her modest image while at the same time conveying that the truth and urgency of her story must be so strong that there is no escaping telling it. And there is no escaping listening to it.

All this brings us back again to Augustine of Hippo. For without playing the trick of combining truth and modesty, he nevertheless invokes the same authority of heavenly truth as our anonymous nun. Their ‘love’ of ‘truth’ even connects them directly to Karl May and Multatuli. In their writings, too, the truth finds its way out against all odds: ‘I will forever keep on showing you the truth!’

In a next episode I hope to further nuance and historicise what I set up in these posts.

The translations I use are by JoAnn McNamara, John E. Halborg and Gordon Whatley (Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (1992)) and Marcus Dods (A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (1987)).


The artist’s arrogance (excused)

Recently, I have been reading in the works of Multatuli. He is well-known for a.o. Max Havelaar and Woutertje Pieterse and, if you ask me, one of the best writers of nineteenth-century Europe.

What immediately strikes the innocent reader, is Multatuli’s arrogance.

Multatuli, by unknown photographer, repro found on literatuurlijn.nl

He referred to himself as

a man who throws his honour, his name, his future in the face of a criminal government of a degenerated people [that would be the Dutch] [...] who daily pushes away Satan in order to fulfill “the word that is written” in his heart. [...] who chooses the long road to Golgotha… not just to be crucified there, but to be crucified at every step he takes [...] for the sake of justice

(I am here translating from Idea no. 206; without pretending to capture its literary qualities by the way!)

Multatuli described himself as a knight, a saint, a new Luther – a modern Christ even – seeking to raise his readers’ ‘slow understanding’ (Idea no. 528). For what was his point, what drove him? He wanted to open people’s eyes to the pretense, the hypocrisy, ‘de schelmery die deze wereld voor de meesten maakt tot een hel’. Institutions such as the church, the snobbery of class (whether nobility, merchants or petite bourgeoisie/middenstand) and colonialism as Multatuli encountered it in what is now Indonesia, were what ‘makes this world into a hell’ – except for the powerful few, of course. Again and again Multatuli emphasised that he wrote no pretty stories: he simply wrote the truth. Only, it was a truth only he and a few others had grasped; and whatever he did not grasp was not the truth.

The self-importance that he derived from his task is not pleasant to witness. (This self-importance does not only surface in his writings, by the way. Something of a parallel may be drawn to the lives of Marx and Dickens. All three were men who in the course of their fight for social justice spectacularly neglected their immediate economic and legal dependents, that is, their wives and children.)

But Multatuli’s writings are not alone in this. I was sent a fable by Karl May, another great nineteenth-century writer. It is an orientalist fairy-tale about a weaver weaving a magical prayer rug. Unlike ordinary rugs which anyone can buy on the market, this rug reflects its users’ religious convictions as they really are: often untrue, superficial and hypocritical. When not in use for prayer the rug is just an undecorated, greyish creation. As was to be expected, its magical features are not universally appreciated. What people want is art which ‘even’ ‘porters and donkey boys’ find pretty. The weaver, however, chooses to work for those he esteems, those who show wisdom and understanding. He works for eternity (‘aus Fäden, die nie vergehen’).

Karl May as Kara Ben Nemsi, by unknown photographer, 1896, repro found on karl-may-gesellschaft.de

Karl May’s tale was something of a roman à clef: it was a satire, not just of the publishing industry in general, but of a very specific conflict he had with the publisher of his pacifist novel Et in Terra Pax. Just like Multatuli stressed that he undertook his labours out of love, May wanted to guide his readers towards love for their fellow human beings. Yet like Multatuli, also, he seemed quite convinced of his own superior insight. Both emphasised how they did not just produce ‘thoughts’ but ‘deeds’, ‘action’. As May’s alter ego says in the story: through my work of art ‘I will forever keep on showing you the truth!’. Of course, history has decided in their favour, and I am the last person to disagree with their social critiques. Yet it remains uncomfortable to hear these intellectual heroes call other people’s work ‘mere market goods’ on sale to customers with ‘ordinary taste’. As May’s alter ego cries out: ‘It is not my craft, but Allah who provides for me!’ May and Multatuli were above base economic concerns. Or at least, that is how they wished to present themselves.

Still, how could they have done otherwise? How could you air such unfashionable opinions as May and Multatuli were doing, and sacrifice so much time and money to them, if you were not convinced that these opinions were the truth, that they needed to be heard by everyone, and that you were among the few people capable of making them heard?

May and particularly Multatuli are simply more marked examples of something that applies to all artists, and to scholars, scientists and political activists as well. To publish something, to write a book or compose an opera, to ask money for an experiment or signatures for a petition, is in itself an act of some arrogance: apparently you know something that others don’t, and apparently this something needs shouting out. You may call it courage or you may call it arrogance; artists may soften it by self-doubt or expressions of modesty – the fact remains that we need at least some of it if we want new ideas to come out at all.

P.S. It is on purpose that I mix up literary characters, implied authors and actual people in this column.

P.P.S. I present the ‘artist’s arrogance’ as a universal feature here, but I hope to be placing it in its historical context in a future episode.

Thanks go to Ines Stassen-Driessen for alerting me to May’s story.


The Joy of Chinese Painting?

Have a look at these two types of paintings:

‘Bright Autumn Trees’ by the American TV personality Bob Ross (1942-1995), or any other of his landscape paintings (please click on the link, because I cannot reproduce the image);

and, to give just one example, this landscape by Fan Kuan, a painter living under the Song dynasty (flourished 990–1020):

Fan Kuan, 'Sitting Alone by a Stream' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fan Kuan, ‘Sitting Alone by a Stream’, now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (via Wikimedia Commons)

How do you appreciate the two?

On me, in any case, Fan’s painting made a much bigger impression.

Now, I know very little about Chinese painting, but I think that I can safely say that both Bob Ross and Classic Chinese landscape painters worked in a circumscribed tradition, within genre rules that made each work clearly recognisable as a particular kind of landscape. I may offend people were I to call their works cliches, but both painters, I think, wielded stock elements, both specialised in particular painting techniques and both were masters in what they were doing.

Then why do I admire Chinese landscape paintings such as Fan’s so much more than Ross’s? Is it simply the aura of exoticism that for me, as a European spectator, surrounds Chinese art? Or the aura of a venerable age (Fan’s painting is a thousand years older than Ross’s)? Or is perhaps something even more unfair going on?

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote how people derive status from showing off their cultural knowledge – or, to be more precise, from internalising high-status aesthetic taste. In other words, in order to ‘make it’ you have to find beautiful what others who have already made it also find beautiful. If this analysis is true for my feelings about the two paintings above, that means that in the end, I judge Fan’s work to be ‘art’ and Ross’s work to be ‘kitsch’ just because this is the taste expected from me.

Or is it really something inside the picture that distinguishes Fan from Ross? Is his painting more skilled, more profound, more original? Who can help me?

With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.